Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No More Home Sweet Home: Waxing Apocalyptic with the Creators of Refuge

All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, and Toronto celebrated recently with the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, which fired a volley of low-budget horror cinema at eager film audiences across the city. There was something for everyone in that abyss of genre delights, from slasher flicks to end-of-the-world mood pieces like the thriller Refuge.
Refuge is set in a grim future in which most of humanity has been exterminated by an unnamed plague, and follows a small family in their daily struggle for food, water, and safety. Father Jack (Carter Roy) watches over wife Nell (Amy Rutberg) and eight-year-old daughter Birdie (Eva Grace Kellner, Boardwalk Empire), and their existence is peaceful, if mundane – until Jack takes a wounded man named Russell (Sebastian Beacon) into their care, whose friends soon come looking for him.
Justin Cummings sat down with husband and wife scream-team Andrew Robertson (Director, Screenwriter) and Lilly Kanso (Producer) for an exclusive interview for Critics at Large.

Andrew Robertson and Lilly Kanso. the team behind Refuge
jc: How did you achieve Refuge’s post-apocalyptic setting?
ar: I have a visual style of film that I like, based on my love for other films and the work of certain filmmakers, and we drew influence from stuff like The Road, and I guess The Walking Dead too, and other television shows and books that deal with a post-apocalyptic world. We knew we wanted to create a desolate landscape, we knew we wanted to incorporate imagery that depicted modern neighbourhoods with a lot of overgrowth, nature sort of reclaiming the landscape. To give you an example, we went out early on Thanksgiving morning, about 6:30-7 AM when we knew nobody would be out on the roads, and got some shots of what would normally be busy streetways but were just perfectly lonely and empty, and combined that with some visual effects later to get what we wanted.
lk: There were also houses and even whole apartment complexes that we found that were already abandoned. In some cases we didn’t even need to set decorate at all! A woman we met who gave us permission to shoot on her property told us there were tons of disused buildings there, and we found abandoned farms, and a house that had been empty for something like nine years, where nothing was touched. There were even photographs of the family who had previously owned it, and all this food had been left in the refridgerator. Part of our inspiration for making the film in Georgia came from us already knowing that these places existed and that we wouldn’t have to decorate any of the sets! You don’t have to go to Hollywood and spend a million dollars on a film set, if you’re resourceful enough to look for that stuff.
jc: You mentioned having shot the film in Georgia – The Walking Dead is both set and filmed there as well. What is it about the American South that draws these artists who want to tell these types of stories?
ar: I don’t know if there’s a direct connection – for us, it was because we’re actually from the South – we’re from Atlanta – so it seemed a natural choice. Plus there’s a big filmmaking community in Georgia now, almost like a mini-Hollywood, and there are big tax breaks so lots of big movies are filmed there now, like Anchorman 2.
lk: It was personal for us, because we are from there, and we knew we wanted to film there as well. The fact that there’s so much film work going on there made it easier – we hired all our crew locally, and some of our special effects guys were people who had worked on The Walking Dead and The Vampire Diaries and that sort of thing, so we were lucky in that sense that it’s already such a tight-knit community. It’s a really good place to make movies, and we loved working there.

jc: I was going to ask about what the challenges of making a smaller-scale film like Refuge are, but with a supportive film community (and your sets already having been made for you!) it sounds like you really had luck on your side!
lk: There are many challenges making a film at any level, but, when you’re on as small a budget as we were, you have to be a resourceful as possible. Andrew and I always said that if we’d had more money, we would have spent it, but we just had to make sacrifices and trades and did whatever we needed to do in order to make the movie we wanted to make. It’s a hustle, but we had a very tight cast and crew and that made it fun. It wasn’t the type of shoot where you’re dead at the end of the day – everyone had lots of energy and it turned into a really fun experience, so you’re right, we did get lucky in that way.
jc: So give me an example, then, of something you had to sacrifice. What didn’t make it into the final cut that you would have liked to be able to keep?
ar: We were able to do pretty much all that we wanted to do, thankfully. One of the things that you learn through the filmmaking process, when you do this stuff for the first time, is how to push yourself further and take the project to the next level. I’ll give you an example: if we had had more money, and if I were to completely reshoot the film, I would probably have used way more squibs and gore effects, but when you have a limited budget you have to take what you have and make it work just as effectively. We hired a sort of special effects legend named Bob Shelly, who’s worked on Robert Rodriguez films like Desperado, and even Ghostbusters, and he broke it down for us: he told us every squib – you know what a squib is?
jc: Sure, the exploding fake-blood packets that you attach to an actor or stuntman.
ar: Right. Bob said, every squib costs such-and-such amount of money, so you do the math and see that ok, I only have enough to use this many squibs, meaning that you can only do one or two takes, max. And you just have to live with what you’ve got, and make it count. If we’d had a bigger budget, our actions sequences would have been more elaborate. I love our action sequences – but we would have had the freedom to do more takes, try different things out, and experiment a bit.
jc: We were talking about The Walking Dead, and that series came to mind when I was watching your film – most post-apocalyptic stories are about zombies; the dead rising up to eat the living. You took a different tack by making Refuge about a plague that wipes us out – certainly a topical subject recently, with ebola and other diseases running rampant worldwide. Does this change the way you told your story?
lk: We knew we didn’t want to do a zombie story, but more of a story about human beings and human nature, and to present a more realistic portrait of what the world would really be like. I wouldn’t say it’s as simple as a good versus evil situation, but how do these characters react, once they’re placed into a lawless setting? Like Rez, who’s sort of a gang leader, working with Russell, who was probably a good guy before all this and has now fallen in with the wrong crowd – and that’s where we wanted the tension to come from, in the clash between those human beings, and how scary that world can be, instead of resorting to using “monsters” for scares.
ar: The thing I’ve always stuck to is that, with very few changes, Refuge could easily have been a Western: a family living on the frontier, trying to survive; the roving gang, who comes hunting for their missing member when the family takes him in, and suddenly the family’s safety is compromised and they have to try and make it to Tombstone, or whatever. Essentially Refuge is a Western, just in a post-apocalyptic setting. And I feel like the post-apocalyptic genre has kind of supplanted Westerns, in the way they show modern man trying to survive in a hostile, lawless world, where there’s no governing body. Let’s see what happens when we throw people into that mix. How do they behave?

jc: Let’s talk about those people, the characters. The characterization is very sparse – it's less about who these people are and more about how they deal with their situation and the struggle to stay alive. Was that a conscious choice?
ar: Well, we wanted to make a film that wasn’t so action-heavy on the front end, and more showing a realistic portrayal of human beings living in that world – and the reality of that world is that it’s quite depressing. I think that people in that situation would be subdued, and guarded. There would definitely be a sense of mundane existence, interrupted by brief episodes of fear and tension. I think the family in Refuge would have been living the way we see them for at least six or seven years, and that mundane routine of survival would dampen the colour of their lives. You can see that visually in the film too, the way the colours are desaturated – I feel like their personalities have been desaturated as well. The trick is, how do you make sure that it isn’t as dull and boring on screen as their lives really would be?
lk: Jack is a really important character, I think, because he shoulders the weight and stress of their situation. He feels like he needs to maintain a sense of normalcy, but he’s the one who often gets glimpses of the outside world that are really scary, and he doesn’t necessarily share that with everyone. He’s carrying this immense burden, and we see in the way he starts to break down that you can’t always take it all upon yourself. His internal struggle is where a lot of that characterization comes from. In the end we wanted to make a film that still had heart, because whether it’s a plague or something else, at the end of the day it’s still people interacting with people, and for every psychopath you have a good person like Jack. It makes you think: What would you do? What would I do, in that situation?
jc: I noticed that much, if not all of the film was shot with handheld cameras. What was the reason for this creative choice? Does it have to do with your background in documentary filmmaking?
ar: You know, I really like that style. I’m not a huge fan of “shaky-cam” just for the sake of it, but I think that that documentary style is good for putting you in that moment. And when you do decide to use more steady camera setups and dolly shots and stuff, it complicates things logistically. So because we were working with a lower budget, it was smarter to go handheld, but I do appreciate that documentary style – that’s not to say I would always shoot that way, but for this project I felt it was the right choice, and it had a feel I liked for the film.
jc: It’s quite a violent film. What was your intention in showing the kind of savagery we see onscreen?
lk: Well, we had several sequences where we struggled a bit, “Should we show it? Should we go all the way?” I’ll tell you this: Andrew and I love the show Game of Thrones, and if you watch that show, there’s a lot of great drama, and a lot of great characters, but there’s a lot of violence too. Sometimes it’s hard to watch, and your instinct is to look away. But when you dissect it, you’re more worried about the characters. It’s immediately established what kind of world they’re living in, and it immediately raises the stakes. So when our character Jack sees that kind of thing out in the world, in such close proximity to his family and his little girl, it makes you aware of what’s really at stake, and it puts you that much more on edge. I think if you don’t take the risk, and don’t show the gory stuff, it doesn’t have as much of an effect on you as the viewer. Really scary things do happen – and of course it’s dramatized in the film – but who knows? Maybe this person you meet might be just one step away from that savagery, once laws are no longer in the picture. In the film you see really bad people, but also really good people, and we show you what happens when they’re inter-mixed.

jc: I’ve always imagined it must be really fun to conceive of and execute sequences like that. Did you have any memorable experiences in the attempt to create that violence?
ar: Oh yeah, totally. (Laughs) I started making films when I was eleven years old, with my parents’ huge old VHS video camera, and I was making horror films pretty much right away. You move towards the silliest and most ridiculous stuff when you’re that age, because it’s fun: “Let’s chop off arms! Let’s chop off heads!,” using ketchup and food colouring, just trying to simulate the grossest things we could. Maybe that makes me sick, I dunno, but when I was eleven and twelve I really got into it! So growing up, being able to work with real visual effects artists, who, when I ask “Can we do this?”, will say “Yeah, sure!”. And it was awesome, totally awesome. I mean we had squibs, and a mould of somebody’s head, and – you know that bat that appears in the film? The baseball bat with spikes?
jc: Oh yeah, I remember. (Laughs)
ar: My stepdad and I made that! We got a baseball bat from Target, scuffed it up, banged some nails into it. It was really cool.
jc: Well I can absolutely relate. I’m working in the video game industry, so I’m focused on one of my own childhood passions as well. It’s pretty satisfying to imagine how much fun it must be to do these things when you’re a kid, and then grow up and actually get to do it.
ar: Did you play The Last of Us?
jc: I did!
lk: We saw that game’s characters and we were like “Oh my gosh, it’s Jack and Birdie!” (Laughs)
ar: Yeah, I know! We had already finished filming well before it came out, and there are some crazy similarities, for sure. In lots of ways it felt like playing our movie. It’s an amazing experience. I think it’s a perfect game. And talk about intense violence – it puts our movie to shame!
jc: Let’s talk about the editing in Refuge – it creates tension by being very abrupt, the film often cutting away from a moment before it's completely finished. How do you think this changes the feel of the film?
ar: Editing, just trying to figure out how you release information to people, is something you noodle with, endlessly. Editing can be both the most fun and the most frustrating part of the process, because you’re never quite sure if you’ve nailed it. And you can keep going back and revising it, so it’s like writing – you keep going back and editing your paragraphs and you never feel like you’re “there”. But you kind of hit it right on the head: when you deny the audience that emotional closure, it keeps things tense. It’s a sustained tension piece, with a few moments of release. I’m glad to hear you say that, because that’s what we had in mind.
jc: The music helps in creating that nerve-wracking atmosphere too. Tell me about how you decided to use it – what about the work of Carbon Based Lifeforms made them right for this film?
ar: I like ambient music a lot, and the good stuff takes me to a very ethereal place. The way that a bassline can make a straight connection with your heartbeat, I find to be an effective tool. I like how a deep, bassy ambient track can really create a sense of space. In Refuge it’s a lonely world, with a lot of empty space. I became acquainted with them just because I like that music, and I think I was listening to Pandora and they came up, and I thought they were great. They’re from Sweden – they have a huge European following – but I just reached out to them, sent them a screener, and they said they liked it and would be willing to do a soundtrack, and so we went from there. We feel really lucky, because they were some of my favourites in that genre, and we got to make a movie with them. Really cool.
lk: They were really cool guys. We really did feel fortunate. When Andrew reached out to them and they actually responded it was like, “Wow!” They loved the movie, and I think the provided the perfect soundtrack to carry the tension we wanted.
jc: Refuge is a story with some familiar elements. For those who haven't seen it yet, in what ways would you say it's unique? Describe what sets Refuge apart from other tales of a world gone crazy. 
lk: Well for me, what sets it apart is that it’s a post-apocalyptic genre film that doesn’t include zombies; that’s just about people and their experience when they’re thrust into that world: how they deal with it, and how they deal with each other. We really wanted to make a movie that had heart, and that was primarily focused on human beings.
ar: Yeah, that’s all true. Very specifically, we wanted to show a realistic portrayal of what it would be like. Ten or so years after the fall of civilization – what would it really be like? We didn’t want to go straight into gunplay or horror, but rather show the quietness and solitude of that experience, and then let you invest in this family so that you come to care about them, and then BAM – in the second act, we totally disrupt that, and destroy their solitude, their refuge. It goes from a home invasion movie to a road movie. But that realism is what sets it apart.
jc: So what’s next for Refuge? Will it see a wider release?
ar: Yeah, definitely. We’re working with a producer rep for the movie, who’s helped us with our festival showings – we’ve played about six or seven festivals now – and hopefully Refuge will find a home through him. He’s gonna take it to film market, and we’ll see what we can do. That’s why I really appreciate stuff like this interview – the success of our movie lives and dies on people talking about it, and showing interest, and championing it.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.


  1. Terrific interview - so much great content.

  2. Can't wait for this film to get to Sweden!